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Congolese armed forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have brutally killed hundreds of civilians and committed widespread rape in the past three months in a military operation backed by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the UN peacekeeping force in Congo, MONUC, to immediately suspend its support to the military operation or risk being implicated in further atrocities.
In two fact-finding missions in eastern Congo in October 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the deliberate killing by Congolese soldiers of at least 270 civilians between the towns of Nyabiondo and Pinga in a remote part of North Kivu province since March. Many of them had been killed during two massacres in August at Mashango and Ndoruma villages. Most of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Some were decapitated. Others were chopped to death by machete, beaten to death with clubs, or shot as they tried to flee.
"Some Congolese army soldiers are committing war crimes by viciously targeting the very people they should be protecting," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "MONUC's continued willingness to provide support for such abusive military operations implicates them in violations of the laws of war."
The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC is a partner with the Congolese army in operation Kimia II, which began on March 2. The aim is to disarm by force the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu militia group, some of whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. MONUC provides substantial operational and logistics support to the soldiers, including military firepower, transport, rations, and fuel.
One of the massacres occurred in early August at Mashango hill, 15 kilometers from Nyabiondo, where UN peacekeepers have a base. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, at least 81 civilians were killed when Congolese army soldiers attacked five hamlets within a few kilometers of one another, only one of which contained rebel combatants. The attacking Congolese soldiers made no distinction between combatants and civilians, shooting many at close range or chopping their victims to death with machetes.
In one of the hamlets, Katanda, Congolese army soldiers decapitated four young men, cut off their arms, and then threw their heads and limbs 20 meters away from their bodies. The soldiers then raped 16 women and girls, including a 12-year-old girl, later killing four of them.
On about August 15, Congolese army soldiers massacred another group of civilians in the Nyabiondo area at the village of Ndoruma. Witnesses said that soldiers returning from a failed attack against a local militia allied to the FDLR earlier in the day deliberately killed at least 50 civilians whom they accused of collaborating with the FDLR and their allies. One woman witnessed soldiers kill her husband and then watched in horror as they torched her home, burning to death her three young children inside.
Congolese army soldiers also targeted civilians on the 10-kilometer stretch of road from Nyabiondo to Lwibo. On September 28 and 29, soldiers based at Kinyumba village along the road, abducted and gang-raped two separate groups of young women and girls, about 20 altogether, on their way to the market. When a local militia allied with the FDLR attacked the government soldiers the same day, they were repulsed by the soldiers, who called in help from MONUC's attack helicopters. Some of the women and girls escaped, but Congolese army soldiers killed at least five as they tried to flee.
On October 29, MONUC reported that the Congolese army had begun further military operations in the area north of Nyabiondo, raising concerns about more attacks on civilians.
Human Rights Watch conducted 21 fact-finding missions in North and South Kivu from January to October 2009, and found that Congolese army soldiers had deliberately killed at least 505 civilians from the start of operation Kimia II in March through September. Another 198 civilians were deliberately killed by Congolese army soldiers and their Rwandan army allies during an earlier five-week joint operation, known as Umoja Wetu, in late January and February.
Human Rights Watch also documented brutal retaliatory attacks by the FDLR militia, which has deliberately targeted Congolese civilians in response to government military operations. Between late January and September, the militia group deliberately killed at least 630 civilians, many in the areas of Ziralo, Ufumandu and Waloaluanda, on the border between North and South Kivu provinces.
"War crimes committed by the FDLR militia are absolutely no justification for Congolese government soldiers to commit atrocities," Van Woudenberg said. "The UN should be asking hard questions about the role of its peacekeepers in supporting such abusive operations."
UN officials have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that they joined operation Kimia II because they believed their participation could help minimize harm to civilians. MONUC's mandate from the UN Security Council, Resolution 1856, permits it to support Congolese army operations against the FDLR and other armed groups. Since operations began, MONUC has made some notable efforts to protect civilians, which have undoubtedly helped to save lives.
The peacekeeping mission's mandate, however, requires it to attach "the highest priority" to protecting civilians. According to a January 13, 2009 note from the UN Office of Legal Affairs, and two subsequent legal notes from the same office on April 1 and October 12, shown to Human Rights Watch, MONUC has an obligation, in advance of agreeing to support any military operations with the Congolese army, to ensure that such operations are planned and conducted in accordance with international humanitarian law. MONUC may not participate in any operations in which there are substantial grounds to believe that the Congolese army units involved might violate international humanitarian law.
The same legal notes also say that MONUC has an obligation to cease its participation in operation Kimia II if it has credible information that the Congolese army is committing gross human rights violations and if attempts to intercede to stop the violations fail.
In May, Human Rights Watch published detailed information on war crimes committed by Congolese army soldiers involved in operation Kimia II. The UN's own investigations in 2009 also revealed that Congolese government soldiers were regularly committing crimes. During mid-2009, MONUC staff drew up a confidential list of 15 Congolese army officers with a track record of serious human rights abuses who were believed to be involved in operation Kimia II, which was presented to the mission's leadership.
UN peacekeeping officials told Human Rights Watch in May, June, and July that concerns about human rights violations committed by Congolese army soldiers involved in operation Kimia II were being discussed privately with Congolese government authorities. In September, the peacekeeping mission belatedly developed a draft policy setting out conditions for its support to operation Kimia II based on respect for human rights, which it submitted to the Congolese government for comment. On October 30, MONUC and the Congolese army established a joint provincial committee in North Kivu to investigate human rights violations committed by army soldiers and to remove abusive commanders. A similar committee is also to be established in South Kivu.
On November 1, Alain Le Roy, the head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations announced during a visit to Congo that MONUC would suspend its support to the Congolese army's 213th Brigade operating in the Nyabiondo area. According to Le Roy, MONUC's own investigations had revealed that Congolese army soldiers had killed at least 62 civilians in the Lukweti area, just north of Nyabiondo. It is not yet clear how the suspension will be put into effect.
"Peacekeeping officials knew that war crimes were being committed by Congolese government forces, yet eight months into operation Kimia II, they are only now suspending the UN's support to one of the army units responsible," Van Woudenberg said. "Nyabiondo is not the only area where Congolese army soldiers are committing abuses. MONUC should immediately cease its support to all of operation Kimia II until abusive commanders are removed and effective measures are in place to protect the civilian population."
The Congolese government has also not removed well-known abusers of human rights from the army's ranks. Bosco Ntaganda, wanted on an arrest warrant for war crimes from the International Criminal Court, remains a general in the Congolese army and plays an important role in operation Kimia II, causing further problems for MONUC's support of the operation.
Military operations since January, including operation Kimia II, have resulted in the disarmament of 1,243 FDLR combatants from an estimated strength of 6,000, but the FDLR continues to recruit and its ability to attack civilians remains intact. MONUC should develop a comprehensive strategy to disarm the FDLR, making protection of civilians a priority. Its mandate permits peacekeepers to use force to disarm the FDLR on its own, without joining forces with the abusive Congolese army. The April 1 legal note from the Office of Legal Affairs specifically sets out this option.
"MONUC's continued participation in operation Kimia II, against its mandate and the UN's own legal advice, implicates UN peacekeepers in abuses," Van Woudenberg said. "Urgent consideration should be given to other options to disarm the FDLR militia that won't entail further Congolese army abuses against the people of eastern Congo."
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"Military industrial production can be redirected to civilian technologies that contribute to societal well-being and provide green jobs," says the Costs of War project.
A pair of reports published Thursday show that many workers employed in the U.S. military-industrial complex support shifting manufacturing resources from military to civilian use—a conversion seen as vital to the fight against the climate emergency.
Moving "from a war economy to a green economy" can help avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis, noted the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute, publisher of the new research.
"Ever-higher military spending is contributing to climate catastrophe, and U.S. lawmakers need a better understanding of alternative economic choices," Stephanie Savell, co-director of Costs of War, said in a statement. "Military industrial production can be redirected to civilian technologies that contribute to societal well-being and provide green jobs. This conversion can both decarbonize the economy and create prosperity in districts across the nation."
In one of the papers released Thursday, Miriam Pemberton, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, described "how the United States developed a war economy," as reflected in its massive $858 billion military budget, which accounts for roughly half of all federal discretionary spending.
As Pemberton explained:
When the U.S. military budget decreased after the Cold War, military contractors initiated a strategy to protect their profits by more widely connecting jobs to military spending. They did this by spreading their subcontracting chains across the United States and creating an entrenched war economy. Perhaps the most infamous example: Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet, which is built in 45 states.
The strategy proved successful. Today, many members of Congress have political incentives to continue to raise the military budget, in order to protect jobs in their districts. Much of the U.S. industrial base is invested in and focused on weapons production, and industry lobbyists won't let Congress forget it.
Not only is the Pentagon a major contributor to planet-heating pollution—emitting more greenhouse gases than 140 countries—and other forms of environmental destruction, but a 2019 Costs of War study showed that "dollar for dollar, military spending creates far fewer jobs than spending on other sectors like education, healthcare, and mass transit," Pemberton continued.
Moreover, "military spending creates jobs that bring wealth to some people and businesses, but do not alleviate poverty or result in widely-shared prosperity," Pemberton wrote. "In fact, of the 20 states with economies most dependent on military manufacturing, 14 experience poverty at similar or higher rates than the national average."
"A different way is possible," she stressed, pointing to a pair of military conversion case studies.
"The only way to really lower emissions of the military is you've got to make the military smaller."
As military budgets were shrinking in 1993, Lockheed was eager to expand its reach into non-military production.
"One of its teams working on fighter jets at a manufacturing facility in Binghamton, New York successfully shifted its specialized skills to produce a system for transit buses that cut fuel consumption, carbon emissions, maintenance costs, and noise, called 'HybriDrive,'" Pemberton explained.
By 1999, Lockheed "sold the facility producing HybriDrive buses and largely abandoned its efforts to convert away from dependence on military spending," she wrote. "But under the new management of BAE Systems, the hybrid buses and their new zero-emission models are now reducing emissions" in cities around the world.
According to Pemberton, "This conversion project succeeded where others have failed largely because its engineers took seriously the differences between military and civilian manufacturing and business practices, and adapted their production accordingly."
In another paper released Thursday, Karen Bell, a senior lecturer in sustainable development at the University of Glasgow, sought to foreground "the views of defense sector workers themselves," noting that they "have been largely absent, despite their importance for understanding the feasibility of conversion."
Bell surveyed 58 people currently and formerly employed in military-related jobs in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and found that "while some workers said that the defense sector is 'socially useful,' many were frustrated with their field and would welcome working in the green economy."
"This was a small group so we cannot generalize to defense workers overall," writes Bell. "However, even among this small cohort, some were interested in converting their work to civil production and would be interested in taking up 'green jobs.'"
One respondent told Bell: "Just greenwashing isn't going to do it. Just putting solar panels up isn't going to do it. So we're trying to stress that the only way to really lower emissions of the military is you've got to make the military smaller."
"By the way, do we really need to update all our ICBMs [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles]?" the survey participant asked. "Don't we have enough to blow up the world three times over, or five times over? Why don't we take those resources and use them someplace else where they really should be?"
"The video must be that bad," said law professor Sherrilyn Ifill. "But fired does not prevent rehiring elsewhere, and charged does not mean convicted. But more important than all, none of this brings back Tyre Nichols."
Five Memphis, Tennessee police officers who were fired for what their chief called a "heinous, reckless, and inhumane" attack on a Black motorist who died three days after a traffic stop were booked and charged Thursday with crimes including second-degree murder.
Former Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, and Desmond Mills Jr—who are all Black—were charged with crimes including second-degree murder, aggravated assault-acting in concert, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression, according to court records.
Speaking at a Thursday news conference announcing the charges, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David B. Rausch described the five officers' actions as "absolutely appalling."
"We are here to pursue truth and justice, realizing that we should not be here," said Rausch. "Simply put, this should not have happened. I'm sickened by what I saw."
On Wednesday night, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis lamented the "horrific circumstances" of Nichols' death. Calling the victim's arrest a "failing of basic humanity," Davis vowed her department would "find truth in the tragic loss."
\u201cBREAKING: The 5 former Memphis Police Department officers have been indicted by a grand jury on charges ranging from second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression for the death of Tyre Nichols.\u201d— Ben Crump (@Ben Crump) 1674759063
Nichols died on January 10 from cardiac arrest and kidney failure three days after Memphis officers pulled his vehicle over at around 8:30 pm on January 7. MPD claimed there were two "confrontations" between officers and Nichols, who allegedly ran away before being violently arrested. Complaining of shortness of breath, Nichols was rushed to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.
All five officers were fired on January 20 after they "were found to be directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols," Davis explained. Two firefighters were also terminated in connection with the attack.
Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz—working with the FBI's Memphis Field Office and the U.S. Justice Department—launched a civil rights investigation into the case.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, some of the officers involved belonged to an MPD unit called SCORPION, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
In 2016, a federal civil rights complaint was filed against Haley, alleging that he and other officers strip-searched an inmate at a penal farm and beat him until he blacked out, WHBQreported.
\u201cFired & charged w/murder. The video must be that bad. But fired does not prevent rehiring elsewhere, & charged does not mean convicted. But more important than all, none of this brings back Tyre Nichols. We need the abuse & murder by ofcrs to stop. And that requires a new way.\u201d— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sherrilyn Ifill) 1674766025
Antonio Romanucci, an attorney representing Nichols' family, said Monday after viewing police bodycam footage of the attack on the 29-year-old father: "He was a human piñata for those police officers. It was unadulterated, unabashed, nonstop beating of this young boy for three minutes."
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is also representing Nichols' relatives, compared the footage to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers.
"What we saw, regrettably, reminded us of the Rodney King video," Crump said Monday. "But, unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn't survive."'
The Shelby County District Attorney's Office said earlier this week that it will likely release footage of the incident at 6:00 pm local time Friday.
\u201cThe family of Tyre Nichols is demanding that Memphis police release their bodycam footage of the stop that landed him in the hospital in critical condition. \nTyre died from the injuries that he received at the hands of police during a traffic stop.\u201d— \ud83e\udd40_Imposter_\ud83d\udd78\ufe0f (@\ud83e\udd40_Imposter_\ud83d\udd78\ufe0f) 1673936022
"Yet again, we're seeing evidence of what happens to Black and Brown people from simple traffic stops," Crump contended. "You should not be killed because of a simple traffic stop."
"And we have to say to America: How you would treat our white brothers and sisters when you have a traffic stop with them, well, treat us Black and Brown citizens the same way," he added.
On Monday, Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, called her son a "gentle soul."
"Tyre was a beautiful person. He loved to skateboard. He loved to take pictures. He liked to go see the sunset. And most of all, he loved his mother and he loved his son," she said.
Speaking of the fired officers, Wells added: "Those five men—their families are heartbroken as well. They hurt a lot of people when they did this. I don't understand why they had to do this to my son."
Tyre Nichols' mother on violent confrontationwww.youtube.com
Some civil rights leaders called on Congress to take action to prevent such incidents.
"It is only right that the Memphis Police Department takes the necessary additional steps to hold these officers accountable for their role in ripping apart a family and traumatizing a community. However, this is far from what justice looks like. Justice looks like the 535 members of Congress taking the time to turn their 'thoughts and prayers' into action and change," said NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson in response to Thursday's charges.
Congress: Do something. By failing to write a piece of legislation, you're writing another obituary. By failing to pass the legislation, you're passing on your sworn duty to protect the people. We know just how much all of you will be thinking and praying upon the release of the video, you don't need to mention it. Instead, tell us what you're going to do about it. Tell us what you're going to do to honor Tyre Nichols. Tell us what you're going to do to show his family, his loving son, and this entire nation, that his life was not lost in vain. We can name all the victims of police violence, but we can't name a single law you have passed to address it.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—named after the unarmed Black man murdered by Minneapolis police in May 2020—was introduced by then-Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in February 2021. The proposed legislation, which, among other reforms, would have banned police chokeholds and ended so-called qualified immunity for officers, passed the following month by a mostly party-line vote of 220-212. However, the bill failed to pass the Senate.
"The Biden administration has apparently decided to assume that corporate landlords are good-faith actors with their tenants' best interests at heart, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, and just plain common sense."
Economic justice advocates on Thursday said that to determine the strength of the Biden administration's new nonbinding push for renter protections from the federal and state governments and private sector, one needs to look only at the elated response from corporate landlords.
The Revolving Door Project (RDP) pointed to comments from the National Apartment Association (NAA) and the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), lobbying groups that represents landlords, that followed the White House's unveiling on Wednesday of its "Resident-Centered Housing Challenge" and "Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights."
"What we can say with certainty is NAA's advocacy helped avert an executive order advanced by renters advocates and members of Congress, which would have imposed immediate policy changes," said the NAA in a statement on Thursday.
\u201cNEW: Corporate landlords are celebrating Biden's weak new renter protection plan, openly boasting that their lobbying efforts stopped the White House from issuing a more powerful executive order to immediately crack down on rent-gouging. \nhttps://t.co/3lLbUwXhXB\u201d— Revolving Door Project (@Revolving Door Project) 1674758300
"The NMHC—which does the bidding of the nation's leading corporate landlords—celebrated the omission of national rent control from the White House plan while also objecting to other 'onerous regulations' contained in the release, which it claimed would 'discourage much-needed investments in housing supply,'" said Andrea Beaty, research director for the RDP.
"The Biden administration has apparently decided to assume that corporate landlords are good-faith actors with their tenants' best interests at heart, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, and just plain common sense," added Beaty. "The best the Biden administration offered is industry-approved, nonbinding measures that kick the can down the road."
The lobbying groups' response came as housing justice advocates noted that they have spent roughly a year calling on President Joe Biden to do everything in its power to address housing insecurity and the crisis facing households that are rent-burdened.
As Moody's Analytics reported on Thursday, the average U.S. tenant is now rent-burdened, which is defined as paying 30% or more of a household's income on rent.
"Tenant stories and expertise informed these actions, and tenants will continue to be central to policymaking that concerns their lives."
The firm compared the national median household income—$71,721—with 2022's average rent of $1,794. In 2021 the average renter paid 28.5% of their income on rent, and in 2020 they paid 25.7%.
The latest statistics represent "a symbolic threshold, a milestone," Thomas LaSalvia, director of economic research at Moody's, toldThe New York Times.
"The rent-to-income ratio continued to climb up because income growth was not able to catch up with the rent growth," Lu Chen, a senior economist at the firm, told the newspaper.
Following months of meetings between tenant groups and administration officials, as well as advocacy by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on behalf of renters, the White House on Wednesday proposed a number of actions the government will take to gather data about the housing crisis and push federal agencies—but not require them—to consider how they can curb rent costs.
The White House said it had secured commitments from the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to "collect information to identify practices that unfairly prevent applicants and tenants from accessing or staying in housing."
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said it would "launch a new public process to examine proposed actions promoting renter protections and limits on egregious rent increases for future investments," while a workshop by the U.S. Department of Justice will address "anti-competitive information sharing, including in rental markets."
The Biden administration also said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will propose new rules requiring public housing and rental assistance authorities to provide 30 days' notice before terminating a lease due to rent nonpayment.
The White House also released a nonbinding Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights, affirming tenants have the right to clear and fair leases, to organize, and to have access to safe, quality, and affordable housing. Its Resident-Centered Housing Challenge, starting in the spring, will encourage state and local governments to enhance policies that promote fairness in the rental market, urging them to "make their own independent commitments that improve the quality of life for renters."
People's Action, whose Homes Guarantee campaign helped lead efforts to secure renter protections and rent price regulations, said its organizers helped "shape this policy for the better," and said the commitment from the FHFA offers an opportunity for the agency "to create a policy that helps check the power of landlords."
But as the NAA boasted, People's Action told The Washington Post that the policies will not change "tenants' lives materially today."
"Tenant stories and expertise informed these actions, and tenants will continue to be central to policymaking that concerns their lives," said Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign. "The rent is still too damn high. While the White House announcement affirms a role for the federal government in correcting the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, the president can do much more to provide relief to tenants. We are counting on this administration to continue working with our campaign to make it happen."
Ahead of Biden's proposal, People's Action led 281 national and local tenant organizations in calling on the White House to direct federal agencies to: